Why Do We Think We Shouldn't Suffer?

Last week I talked about how unnatural it is for us to expect that God should love us.  Like a wounded child, when we suffer we question His love.  We even question His existence.  But none of this would be possible if we weren’t wired to expect that reality should be any different than it is.  Because nothing in this world tells to expect it to be any different than it is.  It’s only because we have a transcendent awareness of His love that we even think to question why we suffer in the first place.

Last week I also pointed out how some philosophers argue that the reason we are wired this way isn’t God.  It’s evolution.  Natural selection.  There are a few different versions of how they think this awareness gave our pre-historic ancestors a selective advantage.  But each centers on the idea that human consciousness and rationality can be explained as the result of materialistic processes.

I’ve mentioned Thomas Nagel before.  A former NYU philosophy professor, he’s widely regarded as one of the top philosophers of our day.  As I’ve also mentioned before, he’s also an ardent atheist.  But, as the title of the book he’s written on this subject suggests, even he thinks a materialistic explanation of human consciousness and rationality is inadequate to explain them.  In fact, in his estimation, this is the biggest challenge atheism faces today—its failure to account for these realities. 

Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is a devastating critique of naturalistic explanations.  Summarizing his argument doesn’t do it justice, but I’ll give it my best shot. 

Essentially, he argues that when we reason, we transcend ourselves.  We are able to rise above our subjective perspective and experience and, albeit imperfectly, access an objective standard that transcends this experience to guide us in our deliberations about what’s really true.  Something similar happens when we talk about value, what should be.  We reach beyond ourselves and our materialistic world.

How such a transcendent, objective standard such as reason exists and how we can so fluidly have a “direct apprehension” of it, is something no naturalistic explanation has explained (or likely can).  Nagel concludes that natural selection alone—i.e., Darwinian materialism—cannot explain consciousness, and especially fails to explain “…the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.” (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 85)

This is precisely what we’re doing when we protest to God about suffering.  We transcend ourselves.  We look at ourselves from the outside and see a different way things could be.  We have a “direct apprehension” of a perfected reality nothing in our natural world could give us.  This—and this alone—is what makes us think things should be different. 

Consciousness and rationality make this possible.  They equip us to be able to have this “direct apprehension”.  But the perfected reality they enable us to “apprehend” requires more—it requires that this somehow is an objective reality.    

If all this sounds too abstract, here’s a quick exercise you can do that will illustrate how it works and may even provide some comfort in your suffering.  Take a few minutes to write a letter to God.  Pour out your heart to Him.  Tell Him all the things you’re struggling with.  Tell Him all your complaints.  Tell Him all your doubts.  Be brutally honest.  If you doubt He loves you or is even there, put it in your letter.

Then put the letter aside for a moment and read a short passage from scripture.  I suggest Isaiah 49:14-16, where, through the prophet, God asks: “Can a mother forget the child of her womb?”  Obviously this is a rhetorical question—no mother could.  But God goes on to say that even if she did, “I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed your name on the palm of my hand.”  (Matthew 11:28-30 and Romans 8:28-39 are also good choices)

Prayerfully read over the passage you choose a few times, taking time to let it really soak in.  Then, imagine that you are God reading the letter you’ve written to Him.  Read it over slowly and when you’re ready, still imagining things from God’s perspective, write back (as God) to yourself.  In other words, imagine what God would say to you. 

For many people, this is a powerful exercise.  It gets them to see things from God’s perspective and reassures them of His love for them.  I’ve even known some people who claim it’s yielded insights that would never have occurred to them otherwise, insights they swear were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But even if it doesn’t do this for you, by imagining how your life looks from God’s perfectly loving perspective, you will be transcending yourself.  You will be grasping a perspective and a reality that you couldn’t imagine unless God had wired you to. 

I would love to hear any questions or comments you have.  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave them there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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